You can learn all you need to know about a person by watching what they do. Small acts are ripples that live in harmony with a thousand larger decisions.
When we learn to appreciate the power in small things, we learn to acknowledge them in ourselves. And in that recognition, there is change waiting to happen.
Learn to size a person up quickly and you’ll do well in life. You’ll know who to learn from and who to keep around. You’ll know that some folks are radioactive and you should run for cover.
And if you find yourself wincing at any of these character flaws, the problem might be you.
A dating poll revealed a character flaw I had never considered
I was doing a research project for a client and sent out a big survey to female readers. It was mostly dating questions. One of the questions was, “What do you find to be most attractive in a man?”
I was expecting a predictable set of responses: he’s hot, he’s nice and intelligent, he’s funny and ambitious. Those answers were there. But the answer that came back most was one I wasn’t expecting: “He does what he says he’s going to do.”
A dangling lightbulb flipped on in my memory bank. I suddenly saw all of the flaky people I’d struggled with:
“Yeah, I’ll send that right away!”
“Sure! Wednesday night sounds perfect!”
They cancel. They’re consistently late. You have to hold them to the fire to get them to commit to anything.
Most people are wise enough to honor their word to their boss.
But do they have the character to honor commitments to friends?
Some people would be late to their mother’s funeral. If you hate flaky people, channel that disgust into treating your word as gold. You’ll stand out in an otherwise frustrating population.
After that dating poll, I started honoring my word, even on the tiniest things. I channeled Game of Thrones and said to myself, “A Kernan always keeps his promises.” It was incredible how much it helped my dating life.
How you lose speaks volumes about your character
It’s easy to feel demoralized in a world where talent is hyper-visible. No matter how good you are at something, there’s a 13-year-old on YouTube who could totally own you.
Think you’re good at chess? Watch this blindfolded prodigy beat five adults at once. Think you’re good at piano? Here’s a one-armed tween playing Flight of the Bumblebee.
More than two decades ago, I was a tall, lanky 15-year-old, warming the bench on my high school basketball team.
Seven basketball courts filled the enormous industrial warehouse. Every time I stepped into the building, I was greeted by a crescendo of bouncing basketballs and shouts from varying distances.
The entrance to the building felt like a portal to another dimension. There wasn’t a single day where I didn’t see grown men shouting, screaming, or fist-fighting over a pickup game. You’d have thought one of them owed the other money that was long overdue.
A mentor once told me, “You need to learn to lose like a man.” (This applies to women too.) I tried to keep that in mind when I felt my rage boiling. Losing humanizes us and brings us back to earth. Losing with dignity honors our fallibility and mortality. We become more likable.
Fighting and making excuses is a digression from the basic lessons in sportsmanship.
I want people in my life who can check their ego and ‘take the L’ in any form life dishes out.
Accept that there are 13-year-olds who can dunk on you at most things. You’ll be better for it.
Words matter—what people say will tell you a lot about who they are
There’s a woman in my immediate circle who I have to spend time with (my use of the word “have” suggests how I feel about her). Regrettably, she’s dating a good friend of mine.
Here’s the seed of my problem with her: We’ve been on several vacations and in the years that I’ve known her, she hasn’t once asked me a single question about my life. Nothing, across a wide spectrum of small talk, real talk, and a hundred hours spent around each other. Everything is about her.
She also makes lots of egocentric, judgmental, self-congratulatory comments.
Social psychologist, James W. Pennebaker, did an incredible study analyzing speeches, interviews, and papers by thousands of people. He found that you can learn much about a person simply by the words they choose.
For example, when they tell the truth, they frequently use singular pronouns, such as “I” alongside excluders like “except” and “yet.” This is because the person is drawing lines around what they did and didn’t do. Someone who is lying will struggle to draw lines and nuance. Complicated lies are harder to build.
An egotistical person, unsurprisingly, will refer to themselves more often during conversation. They will steer any topic back towards something that affects them rather than showing care for another person’s feelings.
Focus on the words a person says.
What does it say about them and their ambitions?
Are they thoughtful of other people’s feelings and vulnerabilities when speaking?
Do they listen to what you say and ask about it?
How a person frames their thoughts provides powerful forensic evidence of their true character.
What a person says is often less important than how they choose to say it.
The most obvious character flaw? When the person operates as two different people
The personality type I despise above all others has two modes:
They are super kind and ingratiating.
They are massive, insensitive jerks.
The only thing that separates those two modes is whether the person they’re talking to is important or has power over them.
You’ll see the worst of this in corporate offices, a manager screaming “mush” at his subordinates until his own boss walks in and he purrs, “Why hello, my brilliant leader. We are all just happily working on this seamless project as always. How might we assist you on this lovely day!?”
Watch how someone treats a stranger, especially someone who has nothing to offer them. Kindness and curiosity towards “the little guy” is a sign of empathy.
If they’re rude to subordinates, it reveals a situational value system. More plainly, you’ll be expendable as soon as you’re no longer useful. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest exit.
Tune in to the little things because they all add up
I don’t love judging people or drawing quick conclusions. But much of life mandates getting a read on a person’s character. Get burned a few times and you’ll appreciate the value in having a people compass.
One can both assume the good in people while also knowing that many will prove that assumption wrong.
This isn’t a perfect science, of course. We all have bad days and misrepresent ourselves due to frustration or sleep deprivation.
Just stay vigilant and on the lookout. Or you’ll waste your time with broken people.